Part 3 - The Conversation/Talking Points (Qualitative Research Proposal Series)

This is Part 3 of a four-part series on proposal writing for qualitative research. Please read the introduction, and Parts 1 and 2 of this series. They cover how to craft an overview as a starting point of conversation with the client and best practices for developing a budget.

With a proposal overview, supported by a budget calculation and rough field schedule, we can now have a detailed conversation with the client about the project. It is healthy for a bit of back and forth to ensue, typically involving methodology questions and opportunities to cut cost. This demonstrates to the client your willingness to be flexible (while maintaining the integrity of the research study), as well as your knowledge on how to modify the details to suit constraints.

In this section, we will share the common discussion points that then inform the final proposal.

1.      Cost

2.    Partners

3.    Field realities


1. Cost

Unless a client has shared a specific number with you, it is inevitable that they will ask questions about cost. Clients sometimes experience sticker shock, but once aware of the resource power and intellectual onus involved in research they become more comfortable with it. We never adjust the cost of the work unless actual tasks are being impacted. In these discussions about cost, we more often than not are giving our client the language to share with others who might be the final purchase decision-maker.

The biggest influencer of the total cost of a qualitative research project is the the sample size. The larger your sample, the more time the researcher will be in the field. If a client is asking to remove ancillary tasks beyond the actual data gathering, then it is likely the total cost of the project will not go down much. For example, if you include an alignment work session, or a bit of ideation coupled with the findings presentation – they will wonder if removing those tasks will effect the bottom line. Most of the time, removing these small tasks will not impact the total cost as much as sample reduction will.

Researchers are also well aware that cost will be impacted by the methodology. The data gathering techniques (in-person versus remote, for example) will impact the cost greatly. It is your responsibility, as a researcher, to help the client understand the benefits and challenges with method contexts, dynamics, and engagements (we will cover these in another blog post!)

The reality with cost is that the client will always want to find ways to bring it down. You have two options at that point – remove tasks, and/or reduce sample. Researchers need to equip themselves with the knowledge to justify either. Shameless plug: Using the twig+fish NCredible Framework gives researchers the talking points on cost justification around different types of research.


2. Partners

Offloading some of the non-intellectual parts of research can be one of the smartest moves a researcher can make. From a proposal perspective, working with partners means less in professional fees and more in expenses. We always share the rationale for working with partners to our clients during this stage, so that they understand how they are gaining.

We work with various trusted recruiting specialists, and also with the client (who may be the best recruiter for certain population). Meena and I have determined that we are not experts in finding participants, but are experts in describing identifying criteria. And, we simply do not like the tasks involved with recruiting. Our recruiter typically works on the screener (based on criteria we gather), and schedules participants. Our partner is so good at this that it would be almost insulting for us to take it on – so we do not.

We also partner with data gathering services. Sometimes we propose data gathering engagements that require automated fielding and data capture. There are so many tools out there, so it is important to stay vigilant on their evolving reputations.

Another common partnership for us is design and ideation. We have a very short list of trusted visual and interaction designers we work with. We also have a network that can tap into industrial, service, and space design (among so many others). Designing is not part of our wheelhouse, , nor do we desire to do it – so we volley that to the experts. We suggest baking in time for the designers early in the project (say, kickoff), so that they can be a part of the team from the start. Ensure you communicate openly with these partners in particular as they are directly tied to the lasting, final deliverable for your client.

An undisputed source of burnout is doing unwanted work tasks. We do not want to burnout, because we want to deliver great process and output results to our clients. Outsource the tasks you do not want to do, but justify it in plain language to your client. It is important to be transparent, so that the client has full understanding of the “what” and the “why.”


3. Field realities

Being in the field is a lot of work. There is no other way to state that reality. I will repeat: being in the field is a lot of work. Not only are days long, they often consist of active listening, supporting client questions, managing logistics, and hand writing (ouch, the hand writing!) Meena and I have learned how to make field research more efficient (cost/time saving), and also, how to ensure our needs are met as researchers. Take breaks, and advocate for yourself so that you are always at your best when researching!

We have learned that efficiency is subjective, and varies based on the client – it is something that needs to be discussed at this stage. One client’s expectation of efficiency may be constrained by time, while another’s is constrained by cost. Get a sense of where the constraints are and how this will impact the field schedule.

A big part of research is travel. Making sound travel arrangements that also adhere to the field schedule require an adept attention to detail (we will make another blog post on travel). Meena and I always like to have full control of our travel arrangements. This goes back to the comment about burnout – we are less prone to this challenge if we have the agency to manage our arrangements. This does not mean we are ostentatious in our travel choices; often, it just accounts for our own biorhythmic patterns and priorities (are you more of a morning person, or night person? When do you like to shut down? What are personal priorities that must be attended to that never take second place?)

When traveling, we opt for direct flights (which are not easy to come by in Boston), and a safe reliable car. Beyond that, we believe that if we are away from our families and daily lives, our lodging accommodations should be comfortable, but most importantly predictable. Because of this, we usually stay in reputable hotel brands.

Sometimes, we do not have control of our travel. It’s completely fine to adapt to a client’s travel constraints, but talk about the logistics and the importance of them (and impact upon the research) upfront. When a third party books our travel, sometimes, the additional time spent on travel does not necessarily reduce the overall expense.

Make sure that your client understands what is required to field an efficient study. Use this time to discuss what will result in successful data capture. Have a strong sense of what it means and feels like to be out in the field. A no-win situation is one in which the research team arrives exhausted and misses valuable opportunity to learn from participants due to exhaustion.


Your discussions with the client should be productive and tactical. Focus on the pros and cons of various solutions, and be honest and transparent. All of the talking points you share with your client should lead back to one core objective: research is executed credibly. If at any point the research falls into jeopardy because of cost cutting or time cutting, it is the researcher who must provide the rationale for the best path forward.

Now it's your turn to share some great and not-so-great field stories that may have impacted or influenced the way you scope out projects today - share them with Meena @meena_ko #betterproposals. I'm still not on the Twitter bandwagon!